Mocking a Muslim president

Hassan Minhaj’s address at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner was a great one. What made it great was not the jokes he made. Any comedian in his place would have done the same. It was his being an American-Muslim of Indian roots that made what he said at his conducing remarks extraordinarily valuable. "This event is about celebrating the First Amendment and free speech. Free speech is the foundation of an open and liberal democracy from college campuses to the White House. Only in America can a first-generation Indian American Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the President,” Minhaj said after roasting President Trump, members of his family, members of his government, politicians and the press. 

The U.S. is not the only country where a Muslim can make fun of the president. There are many other democratic countries where citizens, Muslims or not, can speak their mind freely. But the truth is that the only countries where Muslims can make fun of presidents are the “non-Muslim” countries. There is almost no country with a Muslim majority where citizens, Muslim or non-Muslims, have the freedom to make jokes about the president without facing consequences. Certainly, the issue at stake for Minhaj and many other members of the Muslim minorities in the “West” is their civil rights as citizens of their respective countries. His statement nonetheless talks volumes about the freedom problem Muslim majority countries face. 

The case of Bassem Yousif, an Egyptian comedian who fled his country fearing persecution, depicts the wrong approach of the “West” in regard to questions of freedoms in the Muslim world the best. Following the second episode of the Arab Spring which ended Hosni Mobarak’s rule, Bassem Yousif started a comedy show which soon found itself among one of the highest rating TV shows in Egypt and the Arab world. Most of his programs were directed at poking fun at the newly elected president Mohammed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although he was prosecuted by Egyptian courts, his show continued and his show was not banned. However, following the military coup in 2013 in which General Sisi took over power from Morsi, Bassem’s show did not survive long. After only one episode, the show was banned and Bassem had to flee Egypt. To this date, many Western countries do not name what took place as a coup. Again, the false notion of an “authoritarian but liberal” dictator replacing an “Islamist,” triumphed.

Why do Muslim minorities in “non-Muslim” countries get to practice their faith, engage in public life and poke fun at their leaders, but countries with Muslim majorities tend to be the exact opposite? Answering this question is not easy. Scholars, policymakers, and average citizens are divided across the spectrum. Some see Islam as the problem. They argue that Islam is intolerant of freedoms by default.   Others emphasize the economic, political, and social conditions of these “Muslim” countries in their attempt to explain what is wrong with the ‘’Muslim world.” The debate in academic and political circles has been ongoing for decades and a consensus is far from close.

All perspectives presented on this matter have merit. The question of freedoms in “Muslim” countries is too complicated to be explained by a single factor. Similarly, people with an interest in the topic have different priorities. Some find any system with less freedoms than that of a liberal Western democracy insufficient to be called free. Others argue that when preaching liberal values to other parts of the world, that cultural differences should be taken into account. Thus, a Muslim majority country may not be expected to ratify a law today allowing same-sex marriage, but that does not mean the quest for freedom is a hopeless case.   

However, as we have been busy discussing what comes first, democracy or liberalism, Muslim countries have been deprived of both. For a long time, dictators and leaders ruling Muslim majority countries, have hidden behind the wall of protection of individual liberties and minorities. A bloodthirsty dictator like Bashar al-Assad who is responsible for the death of tens of thousands of his citizens brags about his record of protecting the Christian minority. Saddam Hussein who gassed a city full of civilians with chemical weapons is still glorified by some in the West. Again, the myth is that Saddam was the protector of religious minorities. 

This image of being the messiah for minorities is only a part of a larger distorted notion. This notion tolerates Muslim dictators and their atrocities in the name of protecting individual liberties. This view maintains that since the alternative for these dictators could be Islamists who will ban drinking, beaches, nightclubs and similar social freedoms, it’s better for them to stay. The result has been a disaster. Dictators have deprived all people – regardless of their background – of their political rights. They have oppressed political opponents by means of killing, detention and torture. Moreover, in their attempt to side-line Islamists and maintain power, they appeal to more conservative Islamic schools of thought, strengthening fundamentalist interpretations of Islam who reject all progress. They make sure of survival by advancing fundamentalist versions of Islam inside, and propagating their “minority friendly” image outside.

The “West” should see the question of freedoms in the “Muslim World” as a very much local question. In today’s globalized world where a cleric in Saudi Arabia can influence a young Muslim lady in Paris, and where what a Muslim dictator does to his people causes refugee crisis in Scandinavian countries, passiveness is no longer an option. The longer dictators are supported in the name of stability or for their deceptive image of being protectors of religious minorities and social liberties, the more authoritarian, fundamentalist, and closed “Muslim” countries get. 
It is absolutely hilarious to see a brown Muslim young comedian mocking his absentee President without any fear of persecution. However, it would be even greater to see Bassem Yousif be able to stay in his country and mock his president without any fears. What Hasan Minhaj and the Muslim minority in the West enjoys, should be deemed a right to Bassem Yousif and the Muslim majority living in the Muslim world. They are both interdependent and inseparable. The more freedom for Bassem(s) in the Muslim world means less brainwashed Muslim youth, fewer young Muslims fleeing their countries and a safer world for all. 

This article originally appeared on NRT